Trump in India: What to expect on trade, security and human rights

Trump and his counterpart, Narendra Modi, have expressed mutual admiration.

Both leaders play to a nationalist base and know how to put on a show, but there's far more at stake than mere photo ops as the pair meet for the second time in less than six months. Aside from the prospect of a trade deal and the difficult security issues that have plagued the region for decades, there is also the question of human rights and a new citizenship law in India that critics say threatens the country's sizable Muslim population.

Here's what to expect as the current leaders of the most powerful nation, and the world's most populous democracy, meet on Indian soil for the first time.

Deal or no deal

At the top of the agenda is the prospect of a bilateral trade deal, with the two countries recently clashing over India's protectionist trade policies, according to Dr. Elizabeth Chatterjee, a lecturer in regional and comparative politics at Queen Mary University in London.

"For Trump, India's high tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorbikes has been a particular irritant, while India is worried about losing its favorable trading status as the U.S. just reclassified it as a 'developed' nation," she told ABC News. "Facing an economic slowdown, Modi will be eager to ink a deal that restores his pro-business credentials, though Trump will demand a high price in concessions that will make any meaningful agreement difficult to secure."

Ahead of the trip, negotiators had been working for weeks on improving U.S. access to Indian markets, according to Reuters, but a breakthrough is yet to be announced.

Trump told reporters that he "like[d] Prime Minister Modi a lot” but "we’re not treated very well by India," he said last week.

"Well, we can have a trade deal with India, but I'm really saving the big deal for later on," he said. "We're doing a very big trade deal with India. We'll have it. I don't know if it'll be done before the [U.S.] election, but we'll have a very big deal with India."

Given the security stakes in the region, the most important objective is "deepening the U.S.-India strategic partnership," according to Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"But given Trump's interests, the administration is pushing hard to resolve several bilateral trade and other problems and close on a small number of defense deals," he said.

A tense region

India has long shied away from making formal alliances on the international stage, but has drawn closer to the U.S. since 2000 due to concerns about China's alliance with its neighbor, Pakistan. Nuclear weapons, of course, figure prominently into the calculus in the region as does the fraught history between India and Pakistan.

"For its part, there is bipartisan consensus in Washington that India is a useful democratic counterweight to an expansionary China," Chatterjee said. "[Yet] the relationship is still often a prickly one."

Significantly, President Trump made no mention of the current situation in Kashmir in his remarks last week. Kashmir, a long-troubled region, is split between India and Pakistan, and has been a source of tension between the two nuclear powers for decades.

The Indian authorities partially lifted the longest shutdown of the internet in a democracy in Kashmir recently, although the government continues to clamp down on the use of social media in the region.

The lack of assertiveness in the Trump administration's response to Kashmir means the trip could be seen as "a tacit endorsement of the Indian government's hard-line policies," Chatterjee said.

"In previous clashes between India and Pakistan, the U.S. has played a crucial role in mediating the dispute and reducing its temperature," she said. "Under Trump, the U.S. has been conspicuous by its absence."

‘Namaste Trump’

When Prime Minister Modi visited the U.S. in September, he was greeted by a 50,000 strong crowd of Indian Americans in Houston at a "Howdy Modi" rally. The pair talked up their mutual response, and Trump was so pleased with the crowd he went as to compare Modi's appeal to Elvis Presley.

A similar welcome is expected when Trump arrives in Modi's home state of Gujarat. The event, dubbed "Namaste Trump" by the Indian hosts, at a cricket stadium, and Trump has said the rally is going to be "very exciting."

Both leaders are similar in that they carry out their foreign policies with an eye on their audiences at home, according to Chatterjee.

"The 50,000-strong "Howdy, Modi" rally that the two leaders held together in Houston last September was truly extraordinary: two right-wing populist leaders publicly linked together their fates," she said. "Expect more 'Namaste Trump' stagecraft as both leaders try to change the headlines after a bad few months."

Human rights

Amidst all the pomp and ceremony, one key issue in Indian domestic politics is almost certain to remain off the table: India's treatment of its sizable Muslim minority.

A controversial new citizenship law, passed by the Hindu nationalist government led by Modi, has sparked violent protests throughout the country.

The law offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from several neighboring nations, but because many Indians don't have the paperwork to prove their ancestry, there are fears from human rights groups and opposition politicians that it could lead to the arbitrary detention of India's Muslims in a National Register of Citizens (NRC). In Assam, a northeastern state seen as a test case for the NRC before it is rolled out nationally, 1.9 million people have been unable to prove their citizenship and are at risk of statelessness.

Rep. André Carson, the congressman for Indiana's 7th congressional district and one of only three Muslims in Congress, said that Modi and Trump shared an agenda, and would most likely be ignoring human rights issues on the trip.

"Unfortunately, the records of Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi make it clear this will likely not be the case. Both are actively working to re-shape the diverse nations they lead to fit narrow ideas of patriotism and citizenship – to the detriment of historically disadvantaged communities," Carson told ABC News. "One of many examples of these detrimental actions is Mr. Trump's Muslim bans."

"Sadly, I expect this visit will reaffirm those close-minded views for both men," he added.